Brave New World: THE TEMPEST and Science Fiction

Shakespeare’s tale of discovery, learning, and strangers is at home in a galaxy far, far away.

(source: Anglia Ruskin Centre for Science Fiction & Fantasy)

Originally produced during Lantern Theater Company’s 2017/18 season and streaming May 4–30, 2021, as part of our new Plays from the Lantern Archives series, The Tempest may have been written 400 years ago, but it has influenced a futuristic genre: science fiction. The Tempest imagines a strange world populated with alien creatures, which humans land on, explore, and live with — or run from.

At its core, science fiction is a genre about discovery. Its characters encounter strange new places or creatures. Its advanced, alien world invites its audience to consider what might be beyond their current understanding. And a sense of wonder — delightful or dreadful — accompanies these discoveries. The shipwrecked passengers of The Tempest are Earth-bound, but may as well be on Mars as they encounter invisible spirits, otherworldly music, and an island that functions unlike any other location the wanderers have visited.

It’s not only the Neapolitans who find themselves strangers in a strange land. They are as alien to Miranda as Caliban is to them. When she exclaims “Oh, wonder! / How many goodly creatures are there here! / How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, / That has such people in ‘t!,” she experiences the same disorientation as the castaways. She wonders at the strange creatures who visit her, encountering aliens in her own backyard.

The connection has not been lost on modern day creators of sci-fi. Shakespeare’s adaptability and continued relevance make his work — and The Tempest in particular — a ripe source for writers and filmmakers visiting the final frontier. Here are just a few examples:

Forbidden Planet movie poster (source: Wikipedia)

Forbidden Planet

The story of The Tempest is moved to space in this classic 1956 film. Instead of an island, Forbidden Planet places the action on a nearly deserted planet where only a scientist, his daughter, and his sidekick robot Robby live among wild animals and unexplained phenomena. They are visited by outsiders, a stranded ship’s crew attempting a rescue mission. And there is a mysterious and dangerous force stalking the planet of the film, produced by the island’s now-extinct former occupants — shades of Caliban and the absent Sycorax.

Star Trek

At least 30 episodes of Star Trek are influenced by Shakespeare, but many more are at least reminiscent of The Tempest’s basic elements: travelers visit a new place with strange customs, people, or powers, and learn to adapt or plan an escape. One episode in particular is inspired by The Tempest: “Requiem for Methuselah,” from the third season of the original series. In search of a cure for a deadly disease, the crew of the Enterprise land on a supposedly uninhabited planet where they encounter Flint and his sheltered young ward, Rayna — who may not be what she seems. Like The Tempest’s Prospero and Forbidden Planet’s Mobius, Flint has used his long life and solitude to master a number of arts. But where Prospero and Mobius renounce their art to bring about a better world, Flint’s actions lead to destruction.

Flint and his Rayna (source: StarTrek.com); Rayna is taken with her visitors from Earth (source: StarTrek.com)
First edition cover of Brave New World (source: Wikipedia)

Brave New World

Any discussion of sci-fi and The Tempest is incomplete without Aldous Huxley’s 1932 dystopian novel, which gets its title from Miranda’s exclamation of wonder. There is less joy of discovery in this novel, though; in the futuristic world in which it is set, science and learning have birthed a society in which humans are engineered, the State controls all, and the nonconformists live on “Savage Reservations” where they age, get ill, and have natural births. John, who lives on a reservation and has only read Shakespeare’s complete works, calls the society he is invited to visit the “brave new world,” but finds its supposed advancements incompatible with a free and authentic life. The wonder of Miranda is twisted into disillusionment once he leaves his “island.”

The USS Enterprise (source: StarTrek.com)

Related reading: Shakespeare’s Tempests and the Sea Venture — The real events that inspired Shakespeare’s shipwreck in The Tempest. Plus: a Shakespeare quiz.

The Tempest is part of Plays from the Lantern Archives, a new series celebrating some of the finest productions from recent Lantern seasons, brought vividly back to life on screen. This performance was professionally filmed with a live theater audience in April 2018, and is streaming May 4–30, 2021. Visit our website for tickets and information.

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Lantern Theater Company

Lantern Theater Company

Creating intimate and engaging theater in Philadelphia since 1994.